Over the last three decades, the NHL's expansion into the American Sun Belt has served to diversify the league's geography and fan profile. Markets with high Latino populations such as Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth and Miami have reaped the benefits.
Now, the league is poised to make its next ambitious leap: Mexico.
"I was saying a couple years ago, 'How cool would it be to just play an exhibition game in Mexico City?'" Toronto Maple Leafs star center Auston Matthews, who is of Mexican heritage, recently told ESPN. "It'd be awesome to literally play a hockey game in Mexico and just see what happens."
The idea of full-fledged expansion beyond the United States and Canada remains far-fetched, but the NHL is seeking to follow in the footsteps of other North American leagues by expanding outside of its traditional fan base. Additionally, the idea of playing either a preseason or regular-season game in Mexico is picking up steam in the highest reaches of the league office.
"We had started hearing from our clubs that they'd love to play a game in Mexico," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "The more we can appeal to more demographics, countries and culturally diverse areas, the better it is for us."
There are nearly 130 million people living in Mexico, making it the 10th-most populated nation in the world and second largest in Latin America behind Brazil's 212 million. In 2019 alone, Mexico City hosted events such as the PGA Tour, the NBA, the NFL, UFC and Formula 1. In the northern city of Monterrey, Major League Baseball set up shop with six games that same year. Only the onset of COVID-19 has curbed the country's momentum in attracting these leagues.
To better engage fans, the leagues conducted most of these events featuring athletes who either were Mexican nationals or had Mexican heritage. For instance, the NBA marketed a regular-season 2019 sellout in Mexico City between the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs around Suns shooting guard Devin Booker, whose mother is Mexican American. Just a few weeks prior, cornerback Michael Davis of the Los Angeles Chargers proudly told ESPN of spending childhood summers south of the border with his mother, Mexico City native Ana Martinez, in the lead-up to the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. By kickoff for that Monday Night Football matchup, Davis was already well known among fans at Estadio Azteca.
Enter Matthews, last season's top goal scorer whom the NHL can boast as one of its biggest stars regardless of heritage -- his mother, Ema, hails from the Mexican state of Sonora. The four-time All-Star also grew up in the southwestern U.S. and has a desire to bring the sport he loves closer to his roots.
"My background, with my mom being Mexican, I'm really proud of where I come from and my heritage," Matthews said. "Obviously, we'd be traveling quite a ways and it'd be a lot for a preseason game, but I don't know, that was the first thing that came to mind when somebody brought this kind of topic up to me."
Any type of NHL game in Mexico would represent a massive stride in his league's effort to reach Latino fans in general. The NHL debuted its Spanish-language website just two years ago and celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month for the first time in 2020. Within the league itself, individual clubs have taken up efforts to connect with Spanish-speaking fans in the U.S. and beyond.
The Dallas Stars, who relocated from Minnesota in 1993, held clinics in 2019 for children as young as 4 in Mexico City. More recently, the Stars hired retired goalie Al Montoya, the first Cuban American player in the NHL, as their director of community outreach with the specific goal of engaging potential Latino fans. "You can't reach us without us," Montoya said. "Representation is everything. I didn't see anyone like me growing up."
Among his continued efforts to recruit fans, Montoya attended an exhibition soccer game last September at Dallas' Cotton Bowl featuring Mexico's two most popular teams -- Club America and Chivas de Guadalajara. At the game, which attracted nearly 50,000 people, Montoya spread the gospel of hockey in the parking lot outside the stadium. Armed with free tickets for those who signed up, Montoya registered hundreds of new fans in one afternoon.
"That was fantastic," Montoya said. "People have so many [entertainment] options nowadays. We have to stop relying on people wanting to choose hockey on their own. We have to go to where they are."
Similarly, the Los Angeles Kings have extended efforts to Latino-heavy communities in Southern California and beyond. In September of last year, the team held virtual learning sessions with kids in Mexico City, following up on an in-person camp they held there in 2018.
The Kings are also among a small group of NHL franchises that employ a Spanish-language radio broadcast team. One of those teams, the Arizona Coyotes (who relocated from Winnipeg, Canada, in 1996), made history in 2019 when Alex Meruelo, a Cuban American executive, became the first person of Latino descent to become majority owner of an NHL franchise. Meruelo subsequently hired Xavier Gutierrez, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, to be the Coyote's -- and the league's -- first Latino CEO.
Gutierrez himself touted the possibility of bringing the NHL to Mexico sooner rather than later in a 2020 interview with ESPN.
"That's something we need to look into," Gutierrez said. "It would be great to bring hockey to Mexico in some way."
Significant hurdles remain toward that end, including the logistics of hosting. A large-scale arena dedicated to hockey does not currently exist in Mexico.
"The facility is the most important. We need to have a facility that can accommodate an NHL game. An ice rink, in Mexico -- that's somewhat foreign to their arenas," Daly said.
Should a facility eventually meeet NHL standards, such a venue would need to be located in an ideal market that can draw appropriate interest. With a metro population of almost 22 million, Mexico City is an obvious candidate. Cities such as Monterrey (5.3 million) and Guadalajara (5.2 million) could also be considered. The NHL is conducting research on venues and locations, Daly said.
A game in Mexico would most certainly need to involve some combination of Matthews and the Coyotes, Kings, Stars or any other franchise with a relatable bond to the Latino community. The opportunity for fans of all ages to root for one of their own cannot be discounted.
"We have to tell these players' stories, it's on us," Montoya said. "If we do, people will show up. Latinos support Latinos."
ESPN NHL reporter Emily Kaplan contributed to this report.